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WHOSE LANGUAGE IS IT ANYWAY?

 

Saturday/Sunday, December 23, 2007.

 

By Chippla Vandu

 

A couple of days back, I came across a very interesting article in the Financial Times entitled 'Whose Language?'. Its author, Michael Skapinker, sought to ask what role English currently plays in an ever-changing world.

 

Few would disagree that English is the primary language of international business as well as the language of science. But how does one define the English language, particularly as it relates to native and non-native speakers?

As a non-native speaker of English, I am ever conscious of my audience before selecting words, phrases or sentences. The reason for this is simple. English, to me, isn't a clear-cut language but rather, a language that falls within what I describe as a linguistic spectrum.

 

At one end of the spectrum is formal English—the sort of English one is expected to use at meetings and conferences. Formal English ought to be grammatically correct and clear, and comes in a wide range of accents globally.

At the other end of the linguistic spectrum is Pidgin English—a variety of the language, which employs lots of English words but which would likely leave native speakers clueless as to what is being said. Different areas of the world appear to have their own forms of Pidgin.

I do sometimes get fascinated as to how one is able to unconsciously select particular words to suit the right audience. But sometimes, even the best unconscious minds fail.

 

Take the West African Pidgin English word "wahala", for example. It could literally be translated as "trouble" or "problem" depending on the particular setting.

 

A few months back, I found myself conversing in English with English/Pidgin English speakers. The setting was informal, meaning that a word like "wahala" was actually used in place of "trouble" in what would otherwise have been a structurally sound English sentence.

However, in our midst were a couple of English speakers who understood no Pidgin and they appeared astounded each time the word "wahala" was mentioned. It was only then one realized that given the composition of the group, the word "wahala" should not have been used in the first place.

 

But then, making use of the lone word "trouble" would have failed to convey the message in a manner that was appropriate to the topic being discussed, that is, a corruption scandal in the Nigerian legislature.

While I tend to believe that there will always be a standard form of English (even though the definition of standard would keep changing by the day), it becomes more difficult each day for native speakers to legislate as to what constitutes proper or improper English. And as Mr. Skapinker states, there are now more non-native English speakers than native English speakers worldwide.

 

While as a child, I would probably have laughed on hearing someone say, "the children has not yet come", these days I simply ignore such a mistake. When one lives or works in a setting where people's proficiencies in the English language vary widely, one learns to ignore a lot.

 

Native speakers may indeed feel that grammatical errors need to be corrected, but it appears, that the future course of the English language may be beyond their control. Unlike French, English isn't a regulated language per se.

I would like to end this write up with two questions: First of all, is American English, English? I have come across a handful of people who believe that American English ought to be called American and British English, English. I wonder where that leaves Canadian, Australian, Jamaican or Zimbabwean English!

 

Secondly, should SMS text messages in English be viewed as an informal but proper way of writing? I really do not know, but I do know that w/o sms it wd b vry dificult 2 snd ful n meangful msgs w jst 160 letas. nw I realy tnk I shd wrt my nxt blog post n sms’s. Hav a gr8 day.

 

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